In February 1790 Barton Warren Stone was a student at David Caldwell’s Academy in Guilford, North Carolina. “With the ardor of Eneas’ son,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “I commenced with full purpose to acquire an education, or die in the attempt.” While he acquired some education, many of his classmates acquired religion.
When I first entered the academy, there had been, and then was, a great religious excitement. About thirty or more of the students had lately embraced religion under the ministration of James McGready, a Presbyterian preacher of exceeding popularity, piety, and engagedness. I was not a little surprised to find those pious students assembled every morning before the hour of recitation, and engaged in singing and praying in a private room. Their daily walk evinced to me their sincere piety and happiness. this was a source of uneasiness to my mind, and frequently brought me to serious reflection. I labored to banish these serious thoughts, believing that religion would impede my progress in learning–would thwart the object I had in view, and expose me to the frowns of my relatives and companions. I therefore associated with that part of the students who made light of divine things, and joined with them in their jests at the pious. For this my conscience severely upbraided me when alone, and made me so unhappy that I could neither enjoy the company of the pious nor of the impious.
The remainder of the year 1790 was marked by young Barton’s (he was not yet twenty years old) struggle to either get religion, or get rid of it. He struggled mightily.
…with many of my fellow students, I went some distance to a meeting on Sandy River, in Virginia. J. B. Smith, president of Hampden-Sidney College, Cairy Allen, James Blythe, Robert Marshall, and James McGready, were there. On Lord’s-day President Smith spoke on these words: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” In his description of a broken and contrite heart, I felt my own described. Hope began to rise, and my sorrow-worn heart felt a gleam of joy. He urged all of this character to approach the Lord’s table that day, on pain of his sore displeasure. For the first time, I partook of the Lord’s supper. In the evening the honest J. M’Gready addressed the people from “Tekel, thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” He went through all the legal works of the sinner–all the hiding places of the hypocrite–all the resting places of the deceived–he drew the character of the regenerated in the deepest colors, and thundered divine anathemas against every other. Before he closed his discourse I had lost all hope–all feeling, and had sunk into an indescribable apathy. He soon after inquired of me the state of my mind. I honestly told him. He labored to arouse me from my torpor by the terrors of God, and horrors of hell. I told him his labors were lost upon me–that I was entirely callous. He left me in this gloomy state, without one encouraging word.
Barton struggled mightily…”sighs and groans filled my days.” it would be several days before he attended another meeting and heard William Hodge. He writes,
Soon after I attended a meeting at Alamance, in Guilford county. Great was the excitement among the people. On the Lord’s-day evening a strange young preacher, William Hodge, addressed the people. His text I shall never forget, “God is love.” With much animation, and with many tears he spoke of the Love of God to sinners, and of what that love had done for sinners. My heart warmed with love for that lovely character described, and momentary hope and joy would rise in my troubled breast. My mind was absorbed in the doctrine–to me it appeared new. But the common admonition, Take heed lest you be deceived, would quickly repress them. This cannot be the mighty work of the spirit, which you must experience–that instantaneous work of Almighty power, which, like an electric shock, is to renew the soul and bring it to Christ.
The discourse being ended, I immediately retired to the woods alone with my Bible. Here I read and prayed with various feelings, between hope and fear. But the truth I had just heard, “God is love,” prevailed. Jesus came to seek and save the lost–“Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.” I yielded and sunk at his feet a willing subject. I loved him–I adored him–I praised him aloud in the silent night,–in the echoing grove around. I confessed to the Lord my sin and folly in disbelieving his word for so long–and in following so long the devices of men. I now saw that a poor sinner was as much authorized to believe in Jesus at first, as at last–that now was the accepted time, and day of salvation.
From this time till I finished my course of learning, I lived devoted to God. The study of the dead languages and of the sciences were not irksome but pleasant, from the consideration that I was engaged in them for the glory of God, to whom I had unreservedly devoted my all….
But what of M’Gready? What was it about him that left Stone in a “gloomy state”? Perhaps one day I will blog about the happy wheeling and dealing that I engineered to acquire this book off an upscale St. Louis dealer…but here is a portion of James McGready’s sermon “The Sinner’s Guide to Hell.” I’ve heard it said of McGready that his preaching on hell could make you sweat. After reading this, I’m a believer, and I think you will be, too. (If not a believer in hell, at least a believer in McGready’s power of persuasion…:)). Below is the last point (point #3 of course) of the sermon. I quote from The Posthumous Works of the Reverend and Pious James M’Gready, Late Minister of the Gospel in Henderson, Ky. ed. James Smith. 2 vols in 1. Nashville: J. Smith’s Steam Press, 1837, pages 156-157:
Make some observations upon the end of the way. The end of the road is death: “The Wages of sin is death.”–Here, poor sinner, you will at once come to your sense, and reflect like a rational creature. Now, awful consternation, keen horror, and a fearful looking-for of judgment will tear your soul with bitter agony.
My thought on awful subjects roll,
Damnation and the dead;
What horrors seize a guilty soul
Upon a dying bed!
And now, sinner, you must part with all your mirth. Your van jests and merry songs, your entertainments, your balls, frolics and dances, are eternally over. conscience awakes like a giant refreshed with wine, and gnaws like a greedy vulture.–All the sins of your past life stare you in the face, the guilt of all your slighted opportunities, the convictions you have murdered, the offers of mercy you have despised. The abused blood of the Son of God, now form the foretaste of hell–the forebodings of damnation.
But when the fatal moment comes, when body and soul must part–Oh, idmal though!–the flaming fiends appear, a solid column of devils fill the room, they approach to the bedside like raging lions, they seize your departing soul–what will your feelings then be? As it is said of the glorified saints in heaven, “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” The heart of man cannot conceive of the inexpressable torments of the damned in hell.
The next thing after the end of the way is, hell–the sinner’s own place, his final abode, his everlasting home–in Scripture called, “The bottomless pit–the burning lake”–“The lake that burns with fire and brimstone”–“Tophet, ordained of old, the pile whereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, ike a stream of fire and brimstone, doth kindle it”–The second death–“The blackness of darkness–The wrath to come–the vengeance of eternal fire–Everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
In this gloomy region, your company, sinner, will be, the horrible fiends of hell, together with all the accursed spirits, forever banished from the peaceful presence of the Lord, all the damned ghosts that ever have, or shall, sink down to eternal death: yea, all the rubbish and off-scouring, the filth and refuse of the moral world, which a holy God deems unfit for any other place.
Were you shut up alone one night in a dark room with the devil, how dreadful would you feel! But, then, you will be with him forever more. In hell, you will feel all the punishment of loss–loss of heaven, loss of God and Christ, hope, and all possibility of mercy. You shall feel, too, the punishment of sense. The eternal, uninterrupted communications of Jehovah’s pure, unmixed wrath, will forever prey upon the soul, inflicting keener pain and torture than Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, seven times heated, could inflict upon a natural body. While the one hand of enraged Omnipotence supports the sinner in being, and enlarges his capacity for suffering, with the other he tortures him with all the miseries and pains which infinite wisdom can invent, or Almighty power inflict. Oh, how dreadful must be the torments of HELL!
There are a couple of things I do with this quote when I teach or speak about Stone’s conversion experience. First, the whole episode it is a colorful and vivid entree into revivalism, Calvinism and sacramental meetings. I do more with the revivals when I talk about Cane Ridge (the exercises, for example), but this is helpful to set the tone. Second, it gives me a helpful angle in discussing the language of conversion, or if your prefer, the conversion narrative (praying through, mourning for one’s soul, etc.). In other words, it is one thing to talk about the frontier revivalistic conversion narrative in the abstract, it is another to put Barton Stone’s Autobio next to M’Gready’s sermon.
The articles on Stone, Cane Ridge and Conversion in the Encyclopedia are very good places to start (for eager students) or stay (for casual reading). Each article has a helpful short bibliography.